An alleged $6.5 million-a-week heroin ring blamed for interstate distribution of the potent opiate substitute fentanyl -- linked to 27 Maryland deaths -- has been shut down with the indictment of 41 people, local and federal authorities said yesterday.
The people who died were heroin addicts who unknowingly purchased bags of fentanyl -- used in medical care as an efficient anesthetic -- and succumbed to respiratory distress, the authorities said.
About 500 bags of lethal street-ready fentanyl, about 6 percent to 7 percent pure, were seized in March by Baltimore police.
Most of the victims who died were found to have injected the synthetic opiate with a purity of less than 1 percent, according to Capt. Mike Andrew, head of the city police narcotics unit.
Because of what was perceived as a "public health emergency" resulting from the fentanyl deaths, authorities in the city and Howard County said they joined forces with the U.S. attorney's Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force in "unprecedented fashion" to track down the source of the drug and large quantities of heroin smuggled from New York to Baltimore.
The results of that joint investigation were presented to a city grand jury, which issued the indictments charging 41 people with various narcotics offenses, said Baltimore State's Attorney Stuart O. Simms.
"We feel comfortable that we have put an end to this organization in the Baltimore metropolitan area," Captain Andrew said during a news conference at police headquarters. "We are extremely pleased. This organization was responsible for the fentanyl deaths."
But authorities said they still are searching the New York area for the illegal laboratory where the fentanyl was believed to have been manufactured.
Carlos Ortiz, 26, of Brant Avenue in the Bronx, N.Y., among the 41 suspects indicted, was accused by authorities yesterday of heading the interstate narcotics operation. He was in police custody.
Police also named Henry Jones, 29, of Columbia Road, Columbia, as the director of the operation in the Baltimore area.
Over the weekend, police raided six homes and apartments in Baltimore, three in Howard County and one in Baltimore County, and arrested 12 of the suspects named in the indictments.
Twenty-nine others, including Mr. Jones, were still being sought last night.
Seized in the raids were a pound of heroin, a pound of fentanyl, 34 pounds of the cutting agent quinine, bagging materials, scales and two handguns, police said.